The Big Idea: John Schwartz
New York Times reporter John Schwartz covers the nation for his beat at the newspaper. But his latest book Oddly Normal finds him reporting from home, writing about the challenges of raising a child who chooses to come out as gay at an early age. Schwartz and his wife found themselves without a map of this particular child-raising territory and went looking guidance and inspiration. What did they find? Schwartz is here to tell you.
When I set out to write a book about our experiences raising a child who turned out to be gay and troubled, I looked for wisdom – the kind of ideas that could propel me through writing a book that other people might actually want to read.
I didn’t want to write a self-help book or a how-to guide, since I don’t read them and don’t see myself as an authority on anything, especially parenting. And since our youngest son tried to commit suicide, I’m not sure I necessarily present the kind of example anyone else might feel compelled to follow. Besides, the best how-to guide in the world could be summed up by its first sentence. The book is Dr. Benjamin Spock’s famous book Baby and Child Care, and the first sentence is simply this: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think.” How could I ever improve on that?
I also knew that I didn’t want to try to transmute my experiences into a novel. As a newspaper reporter, I have enough trouble getting facts right; creating whole new sets of facts seemed to almost certainly be beyond my abilities.
Besides, I was inspired by the words of a journalism buddy of mine, Tim Noah, who wrote that while he couldn’t stand self-help books, he found great comfort in memoirs. Tim wrote that he takes greater meaning, and greater comfort, from memoirs. “What I’ve come to believe is that psychological advice isn’t worth much if it isn’t rooted in personal experience,” he said. “So instead of reading self-help books I read memoirs about the kinds of experience I’m trying to cope with.”
So: a memoir. A memoir about being a parent of a child who is different. A child who was burdened by his differences, and who we tried to help to accept himself.
Like a lot of gay kids you hear about these days, Joseph attempted suicide. He was 13, it was shattering to us all. And it set me to exploring why a kid who is gay might do such a thing. The standard media storyline puts it into a form that can almost be an equation: gay teen + bullying = suicide. But when Joseph took an overdose of pills at 13, it had been some time since anyone had actively bullied him. It made me wonder if there could be something more going on, and that set me on a path to the work of Ilan Meyer, a psychologist who developed a theory of “minority stress.” In his view, a young person who is gay might be bullied, or fear bullying, sure – but he also might carry around an inner bully who kicks his ass more forcefully than any external bully in the cafeteria. Self image can be cruel, and the stress of concealing oneself can increase the pressure tremendously. The underlying problem, by Meyer’s reasoning, is the stress of being different.
It made a lot of sense. And it made me think back on a book that I love: David Gerrold’s The Martian Child: A Novel About a Single Father Adopting a Son. Science fiction fans know David Gerrold as the science fiction novelist who gave us works like “When HARLIE Was One” and the great episode of Star Trek, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Martian Child was different: an autobiographical novel about adopting a son who had ADHD and other issues—including the boy’s insistence that he was actually from Mars.
Now this is a child who is different. And the experience of raising the boy and trying to understand him through the open-minded perspective of writing science fiction led Gerrold to a memory and a revelation: that “I was a Martian child too.” He remembered that “back when I was a kid, when I was the smallest and the smartest, when I was getting picked on every day, when I was teased for just being alive, I knew that someday the Martians would come and get me.” Once with his own kind, he had imagined, “we would never hurt again, we would never be lonely again.”
So my wife and I are raising a gay kid who is different in many ways: smart, funny, but also socially awkward and emotionally vulnerable. We wouldn’t have him any other way. And I wanted to say that all children, and especially the children who are different, need to be embraced and supported and loved.
Science fiction can save your family. Who knew?